the recent hostage rescue, Uribe will surely appear frequently in US and world news in the coming days, and I bet that most mentions will be quite glowing. Here, therefore, I offer you some grains of salt to take with all the sweet words most media outlets are using in reference to the Colombian president.
Even without such Uribe tends to make regular appearances in US news, for several reasons: he’s the primary Bush administration ally in Latin America, a free trade agreement between Colombia and the US is pending, and Uribe is currently toying with the idea of changing the constitution for a second time to run for a second reelection (all other Colombian presidents have only been allowed to serve just one term).
She then cites Uribe's high approval ratings (around 80% last I heard) as proof he's doing a good job. Early in his presidency George W. had high approval ratings, but no one I knew loved him, by any stretch of the imagination. More to the point, however, is that the approval rating polls are taken in the 8 major cities of Colombia, and not in any of the rural areas where most people don't even have phones to receive the polling calls. Many attribute Uribe’s high ratings to reductions in violence in the country during his presidency. It is true that violence has gone down significantly in many Colombian cities - that's been a focus of Uribe's policies, and it has been pretty successful (though I wouldn't necessarily argue that such ends justify his means completely).
However, in the countryside where polling doesn't happen, violence has not gone down. As an example, recent research by the Colombian Commission of Jurists has shown thatin the 12-month periods from July 2007 through June 2008, extrajudicial executions AND forced disappearances for which the armed forces were responsible rose from 218 in 2004-05, to 267 in 2005-06, to 287 in 2006-07. In the five-year period from June 2002 to June 2007, extrajudicial executions rose 65%, to 955 total for the 5-year period, from the previous five years.
Second, O'Grady presumes that the free-market policies of Uribe are a great thing from the country. Now most of you know I'm not lover of market liberalism, so you can take this with a grain of salt if you want, but also know that the extensive market opening that happened in Colombia in the early 1990s (as well as throughout Latin America) played a big part in the expansion of coca cultivation among small-scale farmers and peasants. This is because, as funding for social programs was drastically cut and U.S. agribusiness began dumping cheap products in the now-open Colombia market, peasants couldn't afford to grow things like yucca, plantains, bananas, etc. and actually make enough money to survive. Coca, on the other hand, offered profits plenty huge enough to make a living, and so many switched. There are of course many more dynamics involved in the drug trade here, but suffice it to say that this is an example of free trade not always being a good thing.
Uribe was governor of Antioquia, the province in which the Community is located, when the Peace Community was founded in 1997. At the time Uribe was also proposing the creation of neutral rural communities, an initiative he called “Convivir” (literally “to live with”). Uribe wanted the Peace Community to be a Convivir community, but they refused because the Convivir neutrality was based on informing the military about actions of illegal armed groups, as opposed to the PC’s positions of non-cooperation with any armed actor and nonviolence. The Community believes that Uribe still holds a grudge against them for that refusal, and in fact he has signaled out the Community in very negative terms during several presidential speeches.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
June 14, 2008; Page A9
Wall Street Journal
"We are ready for a humanitarian exchange. But we are not ready to serve as idiots to the proposal of FARC to use the hostages as a way to regain criminal power in Colombia."
Sitting in the elegant Casa de Nariño - the official residence of the head of state - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is talking about one of the hottest political issues of the day: to what lengths his government should go to win the release of some of the kidnap victims held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These hostages include three American contractors and the French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held for more than six years and whose plight has become a cause célebre in Paris.
Mr. Uribe, a man of boundless energy, can have trouble staying in one place for very long. But at the moment he is still and looking me straight in the eye as he emphatically states that he will not give in to terrorist demands.
I first met Alvaro Uribe in 1997, when as governor of the state of Antioquia he had a reputation for standing up to the FARC and inspiring hope among a war-weary population. More than a decade later, his physical appearance hasn't much changed ñ save the new gray hairs. At age 55 he is trim, and a noticeable limp, he explains, is only a minor injury sustained while jumping rope in a hotel room this morning.
His views about governance are also much the same: "You have to have permanent contact with the people," he says. "It's not a matter of showing up for a one-day celebration. It has to be a permanent dialogue so that they know what to expect from government and government assumes accountability everyday."
Mr. Uribe has been for Colombia what Churchill was for Britain and Reagan was for the U.S. He took office in 2002 when the FARC's reign of terror had brought his nation to its knees. In six years he has reversed the slide into anarchy and today, half-way through his second four-year term, most of the country is pacified. Murders and kidnappings are down sharply; FARC defections and battlefield defeats are mounting; the economy is booming.
With an approval rating of around 80%, so too are Mr. Uribe's political fortunes. And as I listen to his views on governance, it occurs to me that this has come to pass not only because of his bravery and moral clarity, but also because he came along when his country most needed him.
In 1998, four years before he became president, Colombia had engaged in a so-called peace process with the FARC. This included ceding a chunk of territory the size of Switzerland to the rebels as a sign of good faith.
That special zone was supposed to be off-limits to Colombian authorities for only three months ñ but more than three years later it was still a guerrilla safe haven, on the grounds that the "dialogue" was ongoing. Meanwhile, the FARC used the area to hide weapons and hostages, prepare new assaults on civilians, and gain the upper hand in the conflict. By the time Mr. Uribe ran for office, the nation was near despair.
I ask the president to recollect that time. He pauses for a moment, as he often does before he speaks. Then he tells me of three observations he made during the 2002 campaign that shaped his thinking. The first came during a series of visits to universities, where he would ask how many students wanted to leave Colombia with "no return ticket." He says the "vast majority" always raised their hands.
The second was that in many regions of the country "people wanted to solve their problems by themselves, without resorting to our institutions. For them our institutions did not exist or they did not trust them." The third observation, he says, came during a meeting with World Bank officials who told him that they were beginning to worry that Colombia "was going to the point of a failed state."
"I knew we had to create confidence," he says, and that it had to be done fast. "We had to try to produce short-term results in order to convince the people that we were able to produce long-term victories." He built a plan not only to return law and order, but also to boost the economy and build the wealth necessary to address the social problems of poverty. To this day, that plan rests on three pillars: "security, investment and social cohesion."
Investment has been pouring into Colombia in recent years; absent the FARC thugs, it is a prime location for doing business. The Uribe government has also been beavering away at deregulating and improving the commercial climate.
The results are impressive: The investment rate as a percentage of GDP in the first nine months of 2007 was 27.5%, compared to less than 15% in 1999. Yet Mr. Uribe is no market liberal. His economics are closer to those of Tony Blair than to Margaret Thatcher's, and if you give him the chance, he loves to talk about his government's social programs.
Nevertheless, the FARC and its sympathizers here and in Washington, D.C., detest the man because of his commitment to defend Colombian liberty. What they hate even more is his successful military strategy against what he calls "the nightmare of terrorism."
I ask Mr. Uribe how he has managed the civilian relationship with the military. "Our army has never had any willingness for coup d'Ètat," he tells me. "But in the past they have tacitly expressed a need for leadership from the civilian government. In this, there has been one change. The president," he says, referring to himself in the third person, "is committed to security and from the very first soldier, the very first policeman, the president assumes all the political responsibility of military operations. Therefore our armed forces have seen a president committed to their task, supporting their task, leading their task, instead of firing generals." Mr. Uribe doesn't say it directly, but he is the first president to shun the practice of hanging generals out to dry whenever it suits politically.
A recent example: "When we made the decision to bombard [guerrilla leader] Raúl Reyes in Ecuador, it created diplomatic problems," he says. "And I could have said that it was a mistake committed by the military and I could have sacked some generals. I would have harvested the success of taking down Reyes and at the same time I would have avoided the diplomatic problems." Instead, he says, "I accepted the responsibilities."
Documents stored on computers captured in the Reyes raid revealed a close working relationship between Venezuelan President Hugo Ch·vez and the FARC. But so far Colombia has received almost no moral or diplomatic support from the democracies around the region. I ask why, but he dodges the question.
He will only say that in the past Colombia had not "strongly" requested that its neighbors not harbor guerrillas, which suggests to me that the problem predates the Uribe government. He says that his administration is the first to make such a request. The only country that has ever given the Colombian democracy "practical solidarity," he notes, is the U.S., "which put in place Plan Colombia.
That effort has provided important U.S. aid to the Colombian military, and no one understands its effects better than the FARC propagandists who've spent years trying to pin allegations of corruption and human-rights violations on Mr. Uribe in the hopes that the funding will be discontinued. The president doesn't bring this up. But he does remind me that, three times since last fall, the rebels have accused his government of deceit and three times, when the truth was revealed, they were caught in their own lies. "Colombia has proven its transparency," he says.
In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly claimed that Mr. Uribe's government bears some responsibility for the murders of Colombian labor leaders. On these grounds she has blocked a vote on the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which is crucial for the country to continue attracting investment. The fact that the murder rate among union leaders has dropped sharply during the Uribe administration is an inconvenient truth for Mrs. Pelosi.
I ask if he is frustrated with the U.S. relationship. "I cannot get frustrated," he says softly, "because we have to work as hard as we can every day. We have received a lot of support from the U.S. ñ from the government, from Congress, from the media and from many sectors of public opinion." He is keenly aware of the November elections. "It is very important to remember in this moment that Colombia has always had a bipartisan approach to our U.S. relationship" and he says that when it comes to correcting the country's mistakes, the FTA will be helpful. But Colombia also wants "the recognition of what we have achieved. I hope that any day the FTA will be approved."
Not that he's depending on that as his only option for progress. Mr. Uribe keeps a punishing schedule, traveling the country every week to some of the most remote municipalities, where he spends hours listening to the locals. Colombians regularly remind me that never has a president known the country the way he does or connected with the people the way he has.
"Modern democracies need both representation and participation. If you appeal exclusively to representation you run the risk of distorting reality," Mr. Uribe says. Translation: He is not willing to let special-interest politics in Colombia's Congress block his agenda; he takes his message straight to the people.
This has added to his popularity. In the center of Bogot· the day before we talked, I passed some of his supporters collecting signatures for a referendum that would allow him to run for a third term. But what about claims that he has replaced Colombian institutions with himself, and that efforts to change the law so he can run again for president prove it?
"Our institutions are strong and we have checks and balances," he replies. "But in the past the country has never had the right policies with the determination to defeat criminals and attract investment. My concern is that these policies continue."
There is a lot of work to be done before his current term ends in August 2010. For one, FARC hostages are still rotting in the jungle. I ask him whether anything can be done to break the deadlock. "Of course," he says, proceeding to rattle off the efforts his government has already made ñ from the June 2007 release of rebel leader Rodrigo Granda at the request of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the unilateral release of 127 members of the FARC, to granting Mr. Ch·vez a mediator role in October. More recently, he adds, "We have allowed delegates from Spain, France and Switzerland to have contact with the FARC and we have accepted the idea of a meeting zone proposed by the Catholic Church."
The trouble is that the key rebel demand is a demilitarized zone such as they enjoyed during the last dialogue for peace. For Mr. Uribe this is not negotiable.
So will he run for a third term in order to preserve his policy agenda for another four years? I don't get a yes or no, only this: "I want the country to have strong leaders who will prolong our policies. I want many strong leaders. But," he says standing briefly and looking down at me, "I won't abandon our people."